Seattle – The improvement, from one month to the next, was substantial, palpable and undeniably noticeable.
But it wasn't quite enough for the New Orleans Saints on Saturday against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field, with a berth in the NFC championship game on the line. It wasn't quite enough for the Saints to rally from a 16-0 deficit, which eventually became a 23-15 loss in front of 68,388, a record crowd for the stadium that watched the Seahawks (14-3) end the Saints' season at 12-6.
Less than six weeks after the Seahawks beat New Orleans 34-7 in a nationally televised, Monday night game Dec. 2, the Saints pushed Seattle harder and farther than the first time before succumbing.
"I was proud of how our guys fought and competed this year," Coach Sean Payton said. "They found a way to win 12 games. Obviously, it wasn't enough for what we aspire to do."
But a year after the team finished 7-9 and out of the playoffs, the Saints completed a significant turnaround, falling one game shy of winning the NFC South and winning the first road playoff game in franchise history, a 26-24 victory in Philadelphia over the Eagles on Jan. 4.
And mere weeks after a 27-point loss to the Seahawks at CenturyLink Field – during which New Orleans was held to 188 yards, Seattle rolled up 429 yards, quarterback Russell Wilson threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns and Seattle converted seven of 14 third-down attempts – the Saints reversed many of those numbers.
New Orleans totaled 409 yards, with quarterback Drew Brees completing 24 of 43 passes for 309 yards and a touchdown in the wind (gusts up to 30 mpg) and rain. Wilson completed just nine of 18 passes for a career-low 103 yards and was sacked three times.
The Seahawks converted five of 14 third-down attempts and had just four first downs in the second half, and the Saints had possession for almost 18 minutes of the second half.
But Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch broke loose for 140 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries, accounting for more than half of Seattle's 277 yards. And the Seahawks took advantage of several critical errors by the Saints – including a lost fumble by running back Mark Ingram (10 carries, 49 yards), eight penalties totaling 74 yards and two missed field goals by Shayne Graham – to scratch together enough points and stops to win.
"We had opportunities," Payton said. "We just weren't able to get enough points." !(http://www.neworleanssaints.com/media-center/photo-gallery/Playoffs-Saints-at-Seahawks-two/87eb43b4-a32c-4e10-867d-a50daf013bc6 "new orleans saints")
The Seahawks' top-rated defense – best in the league in scoring (14.4 points per game allowed), against the pass (172 yards per game), in total defense (273.6 yards per game) and turnovers forced (39) during the regular season – was able to keep the Saints off the scoreboard just enough.
New Orleans opened the game with a three-and-out possession, but Thomas Morstead's 16-yard punt gave Seattle possession at the Saints' 40-yard line. Two Seattle runs combined to lose a yard and Wilson threw incomplete for Percy Harvin on third down, but Saints safety Rafael Bush was penalized for unnecessary roughness, giving the Seahawks a first down at the Saints' 27-yard line.
Four plays later, Steven Hauschka kicked a 38-yard field goal to give Seattle a 3-0 lead with 10:19 left in the first quarter.
The Saints drove from their 20 to the Seattle 27-yard line on their next possession. But after stalling there, Graham's 45-yard field-goal attempt into the wind was wide left. Seattle turned that momentum into a nine-play, 34-yard drive that ended on Hauschka's 49-yard field goal with the wind to take a 6-0 advantage with 37 seconds left in the first.
Ingram ran for four yards on the last play of the first quarter and on second-and-6, with the Saints running their first play of the game with the wind at their back to begin the second quarter, Ingram was stripped by Seattle defensive end Michael Bennett, who recovered the fumble at the Saints' 24-yard line.
"It's critical that we take care of the football," Ingram said. "We can't help them out. I fumbled it on their side of the field, and they went and scored a touchdown.
"It's my responsibility to take care of the football. I didn't do it on that drive, and it cost us. I lost it in a critical moment. I take a lot of responsibility for holding the football. I just made a mistake."
After the recovery, Harvin ran for nine yards on first down and on second-and-1, Lynch burst through the middle for a 15-yard touchdown run, giving the Seahawks a 13-0 lead with 14:17 left in the half.
The teams exchanged punts, the Saints drove from their 48 to the Seattle 29 but failed to convert on fourth-and-4 from there, and the Seahawks again took advantage by driving 63 yards in 12 plays, taking a 16-0 lead on Hauschka's 26-yard field goal.
That score stood through the third quarter before the Saints struck. Completing a nine-play, 74-yard drive that began in the third quarter, rookie running back Khiry Robinson (13 carries, 57 yards) scored from a yard out and Ingram ran for the two-point conversion, cutting Seattle's lead in half at 16-8 with 13:11 left.
Three punts were exchanged before the Saints took over at their 28 and drove to the Seattle 30. On fourth-and-15 from there, Graham missed a 48-yard attempt with 3:51 left.
Lynch sped and stiff-armed his way to a 31-yard touchdown run, on a drive highlighted by Wilson's 24-yard pass to Doug Baldwin on third-and-3 from the Seattle 45, to give the Seahawks a 23-8 lead with 160 seconds remaining.
New Orleans traveled 80 yards in nine plays to pull to within 23-15 on Brees' 9-yard touchdown pass to Marques Colston (11 catches for 144 yards) with 26 seconds left, and Colston recovered the onside kick, giving the Saints possession at their own 41 with 24 seconds left.
But after an 8-yard pass and a spike to stop the clock, Brees threw a 13-yard pass to Colston and Colston was penalized for an illegal forward pass as he tried to lateral across the field. Time expired because the penalty carried a 10-second run-off.
"Well, obviously we played a lot better today than we did (in December)," Brees said. "We still ended up on the losing side of the turnover ratio which resulted into seven points for them that week, and it resulted into seven points today for them which obviously, this game was much closer and that becomes a big difference."
The Saints were much more forceful this time, more efficient in some areas, more productive in others. But it wasn't quite enough to take down the Seahawks and advance to the NFC championship game for the third time under Payton, and the first time since the 2009 season.
"But I'm proud of the way our guys competed," Payton said. "We weren't able to get it done and we just go from here. It's tough, it's always tough when you get this far and you're not able to finish."